Editor’s note: Anshel Pfeffer (@anshelpfeffer) is a writer for Ha’aretz and Israel correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu”. The opinions expressed here are private. Read more opinion on CNN.
Long before the start of the current war in Ukraine, which was a year ago, Israel maintained strict neutrality in the hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. Isso may be ready to move.
Since he came to power in late 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made an effort to court the Israeli leadership. He was asked to hold a meeting at least once a year with the serving Israeli prime minister, usually at his residences in Sochi or Moscow, and every few years he would travel to Jerusalem.
A former Russian diplomat explained to me that “Putin respects the forces and sees Israel as a strong country with which he wishes to maintain good relations”.
The same is true for the leaders of Israel, especially for Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s oldest prime minister, who returned to office at the end of 2022.
Netanyahu was so proud that he claimed to be a close relationship with Putin that in 2019 he used photos of them together as part of his electoral campaign. He affirmed on several occasions that their relationship was advantageous for Israel’s strategic interests.
One example was when Russia sent its military for the first time to war-torn Syria in September 2015 to support the blood-soaked regime of President Bashar Assad. In a few days, Netanyahu was in Moscow in front of a military delegation for an unscheduled meeting with Putin.
The two leaders agreed to a second agreement or that Israel would continue to operate in Syrian airspace, but would only attack those linked to his enemy Iran, leaving Assad’s forces untouched. A “non-conflict mechanism”, including a direct line between the Russian command center in Syria and the Israeli air force headquarters, was quickly established.
Over the course of two years, Israeli officials have taken pains to emphasize that, while Israel’s main strategic ally remains the United States, it was crucial to maintain coordination with the Russians.
In 2014, despite pressure from Washington, Israel refused to join the Western governments in condemning the annexation of Crimea by Russia. A strict neutrality should be maintained all the time.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year, Netanyahu was not in charge. The prime minister was Naftali Bennett and he maintained a policy of neutrality.
Bennett explained to me that “we are not in the same position as other countries. We have Russia logo after our border in Syria. We have to take into account the presence of large Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine, which may be affected. Além disso, é useful for all to have a government like that of Israel, who have good relations like both sides to serve as an intermediary”.
In the first weeks of the war, Bennett embarked on a peace mission in which Putin visited the Kremlin and had several talks with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. He insists that “there was a 50% chance of hitting a cessar-fogo, but unfortunately I failed”. He also affirms that his involvement helped broker short-term local truces, or that he allowed citizens to be saved from the war zone.
Any hope of a ceasefire disappeared a long time ago, and Ukraine has since publicly requested that Israel help supply weapons, especially with anti-missile defense systems such as the Iron Dome. Israel sent humanitarian aid, but refused to send weapons.
In recent months, when Russia began to use Iranian drones to attack Ukrainians, Israel agreed to provide kyiv, through NATO, with intelligence and technical information on how to combat the threat from two Iranian drones.
Not all of the Israeli leadership would agree with Bennett’s neutral policy. His political partner and then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yair Lapid, was more direct to publicly condemn the Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
Opinions are also divided on the country’s security establishment. An Israeli general told me that “the fear of Russia is exaggerated and Israel could give much more support to Ukraine without fear of retaliation.”
Ten months after the Russian invasion, Netanyahu returned to office. Suddenly, He is much less friendly with Putin. He received a phone call from parabens a week before his possession, but it was all. While he is, in interviews with the press, he says that he is reconsidering Israel’s policy in the war in Ukraine, he has not specified any details.
An Israeli general told me that ‘the fear of Russia is exaggerated and Israel could give much more support to Ukraine without fear of retaliation’
“Netanyahu has two immediate reasons for moving to politics and supporting Ukraine,” a former Israeli intelligence officer who was deeply involved in Israel’s military relationship with Russia told me.
“First, Russia greatly diluted its forces in Syria, because they were necessary in Ukraine. The threat to Israel now is insignificant”, said the official.
“Secondly, Russia is now using drones and Iranian missiles on the battlefield and Israel now has a valuable opportunity to provide Ukraine with defense systems so that we can see how they will fare in a real war. One day we may have to face the same Iranian weapons”, added the official.
An Israeli diplomat adds another reason for which Netanyahu would consider supporting Ukraine more strongly. Contrary to the Bennett-Lapid government, his new coalition of extreme right-wing and ultra-religious parties is viewed with mistrust by the Biden government, which has already expressed its dissatisfaction with the new government’s plans for legal reform, which drastically narrow the powers and independence of the Supreme Israeli court.
Last week, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visited Jerusalem and, contrary to previous visits, did not attend an invitation to the Prime Minister at Casa Branca.
An Israeli move in the direction of kyiv could be Netanyahu’s best hope of obtaining favor from Washington.
Source: CNN Espanol